The impossibly soft and cozy cashmere sweaters many people buy when the weather turns chilly are having unintended impacts on some of the most charismatic animals in the Central Asian steppes.
Snow leopards, yaks, camels, and other native species are seemingly being edged out by the cashmere industry, as livestock farmers set loose their expanding herds of domesticated ‘cashmere goats’, treasured for their flowing soft hair, upon habitat that native species need to survive.
The news comes from a study released in Current Biology that highlights how Central Asia’s three-fold increase in domesticated goatherds over the last two decades is most likely causing the decline of eight core species. The researchers found a 95% decrease in edible cover across the Tibetan Plateau, the north Indian and Mongolian landscapes, brought about by increased grazing pressure from herd animals, the Guardian reports.
“We suggest that the multibillion dollar cashmere industry creates economic motivations that link western fashion preferences for cashmere to land use in Central Asia,” the researchers write.
In response to a rising global infatuation with the downy product, livestock farmers in Central Asia, where cashmere historically comes from, are releasing ever-larger numbers of goats on wild grazing habitat. That way, edible cover gets depleted and so native grazers like Saiga tatarica, an antelope, the Tibetan chiru, Bactrian camels, wild yaks, and the Himalayan bharal get displaced.
Unfortunately for the snow leopard—an already fragile and highly endangered species—this results in a scarcity of the prey they require to survive. Consequently, the big cat has become the poster-animal of this threat; a so-called ‘fashion victim’ of the cashmere trade. The snow leopard and other animals are “really on the margins,” said one of the authors on the paper, Charudutt Mishra of India’s Nature Conservation Foundation, to the Guardian.
And as if the threat to leopards isn’t serious enough, it is speculated that the lack of wild prey pushes the cats to hunt domesticated goats, which in turn results in their persecution by livestock farmers. The transmission of disease from livestock to wild creatures is also a problem.
But Mishra says the solution doesn’t lie in demonizing the livestock farmers themselves: “Cashmere production is a complicated human issue. Understandably, indigenous herders are trying to improve their livelihoods, but the short-term economic gain is harming the local ecosystem,” he said to the BBC. “I care about the snow leopard but I also genuinely care about those people and their livelihoods. The solution is about empowering them,” he then told the Guardian.
So the trick lies in creating a sustainable market for cashmere, Mishra suggests, by rewarding goat herders who protect wildlife as part of their trade. Livestock farmers could be compensated for vaccinating their animals to limit the spread of disease, and for housing goats in protective enclosures that reduce the risk of farmer-wildlife conflict. Cashmere sourced from these farmers could then carry an eco-friendly label.
“We want to address everyone’s concerns and develop a program where we can make grazing more sustainable, and that allows for wild and domestic animals to co-exist,” Mishra said to the BBC.
But really, the success of these efforts depends on a consumer public that craves cashmere—but only has an appetite for the ethical stuff. That kind of awareness, and the consumer diligence it breeds, may be some time away.